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  • From “Dear Dirty Dublin” to “Hibernian Metropolis”A Vision of the City through the Tramways of Ulysses
  • Julie Mccormick Weng (bio)

. . . season tickets available for all tramlines

(U 15.1576)

The “Wandering Rocks” episode in Joyce’s Ulysses functions as a microcosm of the text and a panorama of 1904 Dublin. Among the episode’s nineteen vignettes, almost all of the novel’s major characters make a cameo in various settings of the city. Readers encounter Father Conmee riding a tramcar bound for Howth Road, Blazes Boylan scheduling a delivery of wine and pears for Molly while flirting with Thornton’s shop-girl, Lenehan showing M’Coy the manhole where Tom Rochford rescued some “poor devil stuck down in it, half choked with sewer gas” (U 10.499–500), Leopold Bloom perusing the offerings of a bookshop before purchasing the Sweets of Sin for Molly, Stephen Dedalus considering the rhythmic music of the electric generators as he ambles past the power-houses, and Gerty MacDowell, while delivering her father’s letters to the post office, attempting to assess the Lady Lieutenant’s fashion, if only the tramcar and furniture van were not blocking her view. Although this panorama of Dublin includes instances of economic exchange, private reflection, flirtation, curiosity, danger, and travel, Dublin’s material affordances, its industry, infrastructure, commodities, and cultural artifacts, take center stage in the episode as they enable these human activities. As Frank Budgen notes, “not Bloom, not Stephen is here the principal personage, but Dublin itself. Its houses, streets, spaces, tramways and waterways.”1 Joyce’s care in showcasing Dubliners’ active relationships with the physical environment of the city is not limited to “Wandering Rocks.” While this episode brings these relationships to the forefront, [End Page 28] Ulysses as a whole explores the material building blocks that construct Irish urban life at the turn of the twentieth century.

Among the materials described in Ulysses, Dublin’s tramways are the focus of this essay, both as Joyce represents them in third-person accounts and through the eyes of Leopold Bloom. As I will elaborate, Joyce depicts the tramways as being highly developed. This picture refutes stereotypes of Ireland as being technologically backwards and, instead, presents Ireland as a progressive participant in an emerging technological modernity. While Vincent J. Cheng asserts that “Ireland at the turn of the century— devastated by centuries of famine, poverty, and rule by English landlords —was virtually a Third World country under British domination,” I will show that Joyce’s portrayal of Dublin’s railways as sophisticated and advanced generates a picture of the city as a modern metropole.2 In the new century, Dublin’s technologies serve as markers of modernity, signs of modernity’s activation in Ireland. This surprising view of Dublin conflicts with Joyce’s more derogatory references to the backwardness of Irish Catholicism and to his decision to go into self-imposed exile. While in “The Day of Rabblement” Joyce refers to the Irish as “the most belated race in Europe,” in Ulysses, he depicts the tramways as features of national pride.3 With this complex appraisal, it becomes a challenge to understand Joyce’s criticism yet boosterism of his homeland. I propose, however, that we may better understand Joyce’s assessment of Dublin in Ulysses by regarding it as analogous to his depiction of Bloom. Neither is idealized or flawless, but just as Bloom is admirable for his compelling human sympathy, so Dublin is raised up by Joyce’s portrayal of technological advancement. As such, Joyce’s representation of the city’s tramways demonstrates his reluctance to present the Irish people as merely “belated.” Instead, he casts these machines as metaphorical vehicles of modernity, as symbolic yet tactile expressions of Ireland’s achievement in industrial innovation.

First serving Dublin in the 1890s and becoming almost fully electric by 1901, Dublin’s electric tramways dominated inner city and suburban travel until the 1940s when the bus system became more popular and fashionable.4 In Ulysses, these machines bolster Joyce’s representation of Dublin as a vast metropolis. While Budgen recalls that Joyce wrote “Wandering Rocks” with a map of the city in front of him...


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pp. 28-54
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